- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

OPENING

• Portrait of a Madonna — The Keegan Theatre. A middle-aged spinster tries to hold on to the dignity and dreams of her youth in Tennessee Williams’ first draft of the character of Blanche DuBois. In repertory with “Suddenly Last Summer.” Opens tonight at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center. 703/527-6000.

• Suddenly Last Summer — The Keegan Theatre. Tennessee Williams’ savage drama of two women who battle each other over the truth about the death of a young man they both loved. In repertory with “Portrait of a Madonna.” Opens tonight at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center. 703/527-6000.

NOW PLAYING

• Aida — Toby’s Dinner Theatre — ***. The Elton John-Tim Rice version of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera is a pastiche of Broadway belters, easy-listening rock ‘n’ roll and pop balladry. Yet the story of a princess caught between trying to save her people and her love for a conflicted Egyptian soldier packs an emotional wallop. Through Sunday. 301/596-6161. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Cuttin’ Up — Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater — ***. Writer-director Charles Randolph-Wright fondly portrays the barbershop as the go-to place in the black community for news, history and fellowship. A hefty spritz of schmaltz accompanies the talcum powder in this warm and poetic look at a neighborhood institution, but a vibrant cast keeps the play from sinking into sitcom sudsiness. You may not look better after spending some time with the barbers at D.C.’s fictitious Howard’s Barbershop, but you will certainly feel better. Through Jan. 1. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again — Metro Stage — ***. Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay’s autobiographical work is an unabashedly loving tribute to his late mother, to whom he credits his thirst for the dramatic. The narrator (Bruce M. Holmes) tells the story of life with the earthy and effervescent Nana (Catherine Flye), from the time he was 10 to Nana’s later years. Nana was a skilled storyteller who could make a trip to the grocery store seem like a five-act Greek tragedy, and Miss Flye is an ideal fit. With her loopy, expressive body language and hectic delivery, she can sell a story like nobody’s business. The play is about how imagination conjures worlds far beyond experience. Through Nov. 27. 703/548-9044. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Guantanamo — Studio Theatre — **. Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s unsubtly political play is based on spoken evidence, personal letters and interviews concerning four British Muslim detainees held for years at the U.S. naval base in Cuba because of bizarre or trumped-up circumstances. The play interweaves their stories with those of their anguished families and also features pop-ups from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, various human rights attorneys, British politicians and U.S. military personnel. It continues the trend of “documentary theater” that spoon-feeds the audience prescribed responses from the placard school of drama: “America stinks.” The stories and performances shake you to the core, but even this issue becomes less gripping when presented as unmitigated agitprop. Through Dec. 11. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Hay Fever — Centerstage — ***. Noel Coward remembers his friend, the American actress Laurette Taylor, through the character of Judith Bliss — a combination of Mommie Dearest and Auntie Mame — and expands his recollections into an entire family of indulgent Bohemians living in a country house as elegantly wacky as they are. In this perfectly unhinged production, Judith is an unmitigated delight — and so is the rest of the show. Through Dec. 4 at 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. 410/332-0033. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Much Ado About Nothing — Folger Theatre — ***. Director Nick Hutchinson has moved the setting of Shakespeare’s play from Italy to an English manor house immediately following World War II. He also takes a more unorthodox approach to the warring couple Beatrice and Benedict, discarding the cliche that they have always had a crush on each other. Here, theirs is a darker journey, from heartbreak and stubborn defensiveness to the discovery that perhaps they are not as brittle as they imagined. This is one of Shakespeare’s most effortlessly witty plays, and this handsome and affecting new production makes the most of the humor. Through Nov. 27. 202/554-7077. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• String Fever — Theater J — ***. Jacquelyn Reingold’s urban farce about a music teacher searching for meaning in life as she faces her 40th birthday — and finding string theory, the idea that the universe is made up of interlaced filaments, strands that are the smallest particles in existence — is disarming and sharply observant. It’s a combination of zany, TV-style characters and enough brain-teasing to make the audience feel smart. The play is fragmented at times, resulting in episodes of wildly varying energy levels. Even the set seems disjointed, and some of the characters do not seem organic to the piece. Yet the comedy sometimes crackles with off-kilter humor and insight. Through Nov. 27. 800/494-TIXS. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Violet Hour — Rep Stage — ***. Red-hot performances lend heat and light to Richard Greenberg’s delicately whimsical play about the heyday of the Lost Generation and the dawning of the Jazz Age, as a patrician New York publisher struggles to decide whether his first venture should be his best friend’s novel or his clandestine lover’s memoirs. Clouding the decision is a mysterious machine that gives him a glimpse of the future. The play is giddy with language that offers full-blown comedy in itself, and it’s directed with depth and a sure sense of flapper-era vim by Kasi Campbell. Through Sunday at Howard County Community College. 410/772-4900. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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